A tantalizing tidbit from Robert Draper’s story about how Trump might handle his predicament in Congress, stuck between Democrats on the left who refuse to deal with him en masse and a Freedom Caucus on the right that’s willing to walk away from any legislation that’s short of true fiscal conservatism. If the Freedom Caucus can’t be placated, Trump faces a hard choice between serial frustration on his major legislative initiatives or bipartisan packages with plenty of goodies for Democrats.
What might some of those goodies look like? Red-state Democrat Joe Manchin gave Draper a hint:
The Senate Democrat who, to outward appearances, seems closest to Trump is Joe Manchin, who met face to face with the president-elect in Trump Tower in December. Before the meeting, Bannon took the West Virginia senator aside. “The thing you need to know about Trump,” Bannon said, “is he doesn’t care about the Republican Party and he doesn’t care about the Democratic Party. He just wants to put some wins on the board for the country.” In the meeting, Trump asked Manchin what could be done for coal miners. Manchin replied that he should support his Miners Protection Act, which would secure health benefits and pension funds for retired miners. According to Manchin, Trump replied that he would thoroughly support such a measure.
Later that month, Manchin went on “Morning Joe” — the one show on MSNBC that Trump has been known to watch — to discuss, on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the Newtown school massacre, the need to expand background checks on gun purchases. Within an hour after Manchin was offscreen, his cellphone rang. It was Trump. Manchin was not completely forthcoming about the conversation, but he did tell me that he envisioned “a complete opportunity” for new gun-safety legislation. Unlike with Obama, he said, “no one thinks President Trump would do anything that would take away your gun rights.”
Given his unpopularity, nationally and especially with the Democratic base, it would require a verrrry sexy bit of bait to get Democrats to come to the table and talk horse-trading with Trump. Gun control might do the trick. Get too aggressive with it, of course, and it’ll backfire on the White House by angering Trump’s rural base — but what if he can find some measure that was broadly popular, one which, by supporting it, would serve notice to Democrats that he’s prepared to throw off Republican orthodoxy and consider centrist solutions if they’ll meet him halfway?
As chance would have it, there is such a measure out there. And Joe Manchin has a history with it.
Er, most people who buy guns at gun shows or online do have to go through a background check, certainly if they’re buying from a federally licensed dealer. (Transactions involving people who sell guns irregularly are a different matter.) But you can see from the numbers there and other polls that the public really likes the idea of expanded background checks in principle. Manchin co-authored a bill four years ago with Pat Toomey that proposed to expand background checks to all sales at gun shows and online, irrespective of whether the seller was a licensed dealer or sold guns regularly, with an exception for transactions between family and friends. Result: It got 54 votes in the Senate, not bad but not enough to defeat a filibuster — and that was with a Democratic majority. A poll taken shortly afterward, though, showed 65 percent of Americans thought the bill should have passed while fully 83 percent said they favor a law in principle that would require background checks on all gun purchases. I can’t imagine Republicans supporting a standalone bill on background checks, but if it was tacked on to some other major initiative that Republicans were interested in, maybe it’d help Trump pull together a centrist coalition in Congress. And once he’s proved he’s willing to and able to do that once, it becomes easier to imagine him re-forming that coalition again on other subjects.
That’s not the only Democratic agenda item Trump might be willing to deal on. We’ve heard this one before, haven’t we?
When I asked Trump for more specifics, he gingerly offered a few morsels: “This is something that’s going to be a real infrastructure bill, where real work is going to be done on bridges and roads and airports and things that we’re supposed to be doing. So it’s not just a political piece of paper. We’re going to do infrastructure, and it’s going to be a very big thing.”
Trump’s description struck me as uncharacteristically modest. Bannon had evoked a more gleaming vision when he told me: “Look, economic nationalism is predicated on a state-of-the-art infrastructure for the country, right? Broadband as good as Korea. Airports as good as China. Roads as good as Germany. A rail system as good as France. If you’re going to be a world-class power, you’ve got to have a world-class infrastructure.”
High-speed rail, our old friend back again. “We’re also going to prime the pump,” Trump told Draper. “You know what I mean by ‘prime the pump’? In order to get [the economy] going, and going big league, and having the jobs coming in and the taxes that will be cut very substantially and the regulations that’ll be going, we’re going to have to prime the pump to some extent. In other words: Spend money to make a lot more money in the future. And that’ll happen.” Draper identified that, correctly of course, as pure Keynesian stimulus. With enough direct spending by Uncle Sam, there’s no reason to think Trump can’t put together, say, 120 Republicans and 100 Democrats in the House, and if he does, it’ll send a message loud and clear to the Freedom Caucus that he doesn’t need them to govern. The GOP is probably fated to tackle tax reform next, but I’m sure Bannon’s pressing him to go to infrastructure instead. Why not focus on a jobs program which really might attract some Democratic votes — and which is extremely popular with the public — in order to rebuild political capital than roll the dice on a subject that’s infamously as difficult as health care, if not more so?
Here’s Spicer assuring the press today that Trump’s serious about working with Democrats, starting with health care. By the way, Draper asked Trump if it’s safe to say that there won’t be much by way of entitlement reform over the next four years. Trump: “I think you’re right.”